Indian opposition hardliner Narendra Modi wins key post

PANAJI (AFP) - Controversial politician Narendra Modi will be the frontman for India's general elections next year, his party said on Sunday, boosting his chances of becoming the nation's next prime minister.

Mr Modi, chief minister of the thriving state of Gujarat for more than a decade, was chosen to head the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) election panel, despite opposition from some of his senior colleagues.

The BJP, the main opposition in parliament, selected Mr Modi after a two-day meeting of the national executive called to plan for elections due next May.

"I have today appointed the Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi the chairman of the election campaign committee," BJP President Rajnath Singh told reporters at the meeting held in the coastal state of Goa.

"I believe that the whole country is looking to the Bharatiya Janata Party ... we are confident that the BJP will move ahead in 2014," Mr Singh said to applause and cheers from party members.

The post is seen as a stepping stone for Mr Modi in his quest to be named the BJP's prime ministerial candidate, despite concerns that he would be seen as a divisive figure over his failure to stop deadly anti-Muslim riots in 2002.

In his new role Mr Modi, who is attending the meeting, will now have to canvass for votes around India, forge strategies to attack the ruling centre-left Congress party and will also build support for his candidacy as premier.

He has painted himself as a pro-business reformist who can revive the fortunes of the world's largest democracy by defeating the Congress, which faces an uphill battle to win re-election, amid a string of graft scandals and a slump in economic growth.

But the ghosts of anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat just over a decade ago could pose a stumbling block to Mr Modi's ambitions to lead India.

As many as 2,000 people - mainly Muslims - were killed during the month-long unrest, according to rights groups.

One of Mr Modi's former ministers was jailed for life for instigating the killings but several investigations have cleared the hardline politician of personal responsibility.

Some senior members stayed away from the meeting in Goa, including Mr Lal Krishna Advani, the 85-year-old BJP veteran who mentored Mr Modi.

Mr Advani, who officials said was too sick to attend the meeting of some 300 party members, is now opposed to Mr Modi's elevation.

Another senior leader, Ms Uma Bharti, is staying away, citing illness. She had earlier expressed reluctance to support Mr Modi as the prime ministerial candidate.

Despite the absence of such high-profile figures, local newspapers had forecast his appointment as the BJP's election frontman, saying the party "mood favours Modi".